It’s 1947 and Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) is given the dubious honour of being the last British Viceroy of India. With his magisterial wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson) at his side, he arrives in Delhi with the full knowledge that he has been handed a poisoned chalice. The India that he leaves behind will be subject to the innate animosity between its Hindu and Muslim inhabitants. There is already much talk about the founding of a new country, Pakistan. Meanwhile, Hindi Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal), working as a servant in the Viceroy’s House, reunites his acquaintance with Aelia (Huma Qureshi) a young Muslim woman he met some years earlier and who has now been promised by her father, Ali (the late Om Puri) to another man, as part of an arranged marriage. But as Jeet and Aelia spend time together, they begin to realise they are falling in love…
The partition of India is a fascinating and shameful slice of recent history and frankly one that deserves a better film than this. ‘Show don’t tell’ is a well known adage in storytelling but sadly, nobody seems to have told the screenwriters of this tale, as repeatedly, characters tell us of far more interesting events happening offscreen. The occasional use of a bit of vintage newsreel isn’t enough to pep things up and inevitably, I found my attention wandering. It’s no good telling me about a massacre on a train. I need to see it!
The performances are, as you might expect, exemplary. Bonneville dashes off the kind of ‘decent fellow’ routine he could do in his sleep, while Anderson portrays a character that is so painfully posh, she can’t even seem to walk without affectation. The film chooses to skip over her real life affair with Nehru (played here by Tanveer Gani) and there’s a suggestion that the Mountbattens stayed on after partition in order to help ease the transition, which is at best fanciful and at worst, a downright lie. Mahatma Ghandi (Neeraj Kabi) totters on for a scene or two and Michael Gambon offers a decent turn as the oleaginous General Hastings, but there’s the distinct feeling that a much more compelling story is happening just a few streets away from the gilded corridors of the titular palace. Most damning of all, the love affair element feels somehow superfluous, grafted on to make this more palatable to a wider audience, but as it stands, this is like history seen through Downtown Abbey coloured glasses – lacking in grit, action and verité.
Not awful, you understand, just a bit so-so.